By Jarrod Jones. When you flip through Spencer & Locke, it’s impossible to look past its influences. Hard-boiled crime splattered across brick and pavement. A boy and his favorite stuffed animal getting into scrapes. As far as premises go, what “Calvin & Hobbes grew up in Sin City” lacks in subtlety, it certainly makes up for in spirit.

With Spencer & Locke, writer David Pepose is wearing his influences on his sleeve. “I remember having this thought of a Frank Miller version of Calvin, all bandaged and bloody, smiling maniacally as he holds a rag doll in the rain,” Pepose tells me. ” That idea just kind of lit me up — the first script just poured out of me over the course of a week, and the treatment for the rest of the series poured out of me the week after that.

What makes Spencer & Locke such an interesting book is that the premise is just the icing. Beneath its reverence for Bill Watterson and Frank Miller lies a story about a man haunted by his childhood. Driven to make life better for other people. What life took away from him, he’ll give back to the city he believes in. Spencer & Locke holds more in store than a mere gimmick. It’s funny. But it’s sad too, as these stories about the high cost of justice often are. As David says, “The question is what do we do with our scars? Are we defined by them? And can we ever move beyond them?

Cover to ‘Spencer & Locke’ #1. Art by Jorge Santiago, Jr. and Jasen Smith/Action Lab

1. The tonal shift from Sunday morning comic strips to hard-boiled crime story shouldn’t work. And yet ‘Spencer & Locke’ is a refreshingly well-considered story that blends the two together with absolutely zero fuss. How long has this story been gestating in your mind?

David Pepose: First off, thank you for the kind words — Spencer & Locke has been a labor of love for going on two and a half years now, and by the time the final issue hits the stands, we’ll almost be in it for three.

It was just one of those ideas that kind of hits you like a thunderbolt — “What if Calvin & Hobbes grew up in Sin City?” I remember having this thought of a Frank Miller version of Calvin, all bandaged and bloody, smiling maniacally as he holds a rag doll in the rain. That idea just kind of lit me up — the first script just poured out of me over the course of a week, and the treatment for the rest of the series poured out of me the week after that.

But if there’s one lesson you’ll learn about comics, it’s that finding the right team to work with takes significantly longer, even to get a workable pitch together — but I can say that with Jorge Santiago, Jr. as my artist and co-creator, along with colorist Jasen Smith, letterer Colin Bell and variant cover artists Maan House and Joe Mulvey, it was well worth it.

2. What was it about Bill Watterson’s ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ that it could seep into your subconsciousness deep enough that a story like ‘Spencer & Locke’ ended up on the page?

DP: For me, I think Calvin & Hobbes has two great strengths that have engaged readers over the years: the clearly defined voices and perspectives of all of its main characters, and the deep, if sometimes volatile, friendship between a boy and his imaginary tiger.

But these two qualities can just as easily be described when you’re talking about great buddy-cop pairings like Riggs and Murtaugh or Starsky and Hutch or Rust Cohle and Marty Hart — it’s the chemistry and the banter and the camaraderie that sells the story just as much as the action. Now add in the wrinkle of one of these partners not actually being real? Now you’ve got yourself some real tension and danger in the mix.

But the other thing that I wanted to do with Spencer & Locke was to take the iconography of Calvin & Hobbes — which is something that even the most casual comics reader will recognize and understand — and cast it in a darker setting. There’s a reason why Locke has a bright red Challenger, you know?

So when we first started putting this book together, it was definitely fueled by a certain sense of audacity — just how far can we take this? — but as I started digging into these characters’ heads, I started to realize there’s a much deeper, much more human story at play.

3. The artist of ‘Spencer & Locke’, Jorge Santiago, somehow channels both Bill Watterson and Rafael Albuquerque at once. It feels entirely organic to the story you’re telling. What is your working relationship with Mr. Santiago like in regards to ‘Spencer & Locke’?

DP: Jorge is just fantastic — just a consummate artist’s artist, and a real professional from beginning to end. He and I were in constant communication on every stage of Spencer & Locke, from the initial designs to the thumbnails and panel layouts to the final pencils and inks.

But Jorge added so much to the book even without my involvement — I remember that in the initial scripts, I had thought of Locke as more of a bruiser and Spencer as a scrawny sidekick, but Jorge flipped it around and really sold the idea of Spencer as sort of a subconscious protector for Locke.

And that’s what’s so great about working with Jorge, is he brings so much knowledge and thoughtfulness to the table — he also draws from a ton of influences, from manga to traditional noir to books like Last Days of American Crime or Criminal (the latter of which was a tremendous influence on this book on my end, as well).

Sometimes we’d go back and forth with essay-length discussions about how a sequence should look — and let me tell you, Jorge delivered on every crazy thing I could come up with and then some. Honestly, I’m pretty comfortable saying I’m the weakest member of the creative team, seeing what Jorge and our colorist Jasen Smith came up with.

4. How did ‘Spencer & Locke’ end up at Action Lab? What’s it like to go from working as a comics journalist to becoming a comics writer?

DP: It’s funny, because Spencer & Locke was seen by a lot of people as the book that couldn’t be done. I remember one publisher in particular who said it was the best pitch he’d never publish — the fear of industry politics was that strong. But thankfully Action Lab saw things differently.

I had heard great things about Action Lab thanks to titles like Princeless, Stray, and Molly Danger, and it was particularly heartening when our editor, Dave Dwonch, emailed us back only an hour after we sent our pitch, asking what we thought our timetable was. Dave immediately saw the potential in our pitch, and having his support — and the creative freedom he allowed us — really helped Jorge and I bring our A-game to Spencer & Locke.

As far as the jump from comics journo to comics writer, it was such invaluable training. I actually started my career interning at DC Comics, but eight years at Newsarama was the equivalent of comic book graduate school — I learned so much about what I liked about comics, what I didn’t like about comics, and really got to know the landscape of the industry better. (I even found my letterer, Colin Bell, because he used to be one of my reviewers.) Getting to read and review comics for so long really was invaluable to me formulating my own voice and ethos as a creator.

5. I can’t help but notice that whenever Spencer is in a room — when we’re seeing through the prism of Locke’s imagination, that is — the panel is framed to maximize his size. Is this a subtle way to suggest that Locke’s detective work, his ability to do his job, might come from his favored furry friend — a preferred personality? The title of the book is ‘Spencer & Locke’ and not ‘Locke & Spencer’, after all.

DP: For sure — and that size difference was Jorge’s great idea, to sort of play up Spencer’s role as a protector to the all-too-human Locke. Spencer represents a lot of things to Locke, but one of those things is definitely his intuition as a detective, that keen animal instinct that helps Locke track and process clues.

I wanted to leave some amount of room for interpretation as the story progresses, but I think Spencer and Locke’s personalities often act as opposites of a greater whole — even though he’s the taller one of the two, Spencer is the good cop to Locke’s scrappy bad cop, and often winds up being the soft-spoken counterpart to Locke’s sometimes vicious behavior.

But without giving too much away for future issues — we definitely delve deeper into the idea of Spencer as a side personality. And who knows? Maybe Spencer’s not the only one…

6. On that tack, has Locke’s fixation on his childhood friend manifested into a personality disorder? Is ‘Spencer & Locke’, in a sense, a story about mental illness?

DP: Absolutely. At its core, Spencer & Locke is very much a comic about mental illness, childhood trauma and lifelong depression. From our very first page, we don’t pull our punches — Locke went through some harrowing stuff as a kid, and returning home is going to bring everything back up to the surface.

But this book is definitely a balancing act — the book unarguably starts off bleak, and actually gets bleaker as we continue on. But if you stick with us, I promise, it’s in service of a redemptive path. The real theme about Spencer & Locke isn’t just about pathologies — the question is what do we do with our scars? Are we defined by them? And can we ever move beyond them?

7. Aside from ‘Calvin & Hobbes’, what are the news-printed comic strips that you enjoy most?

DP: Oh man, great question… I actually used to be the cartoonist for my high school newspaper, so this is near and dear to my heart. Beyond Calvin & Hobbes, I’ve always been a big fan of FoxTrot, Get Fuzzy, The Far Side, The Amazing Spider-Man. And with three kid siblings of my own about to graduate college, I’ve been really taken with the sentimentality of Zits over the past couple years. I actually took some pages from Zits’ playbook with Spencer & Locke — I feel like if you can get readers to establish that sort of empathy with your characters, you’re on the right track.

8. Without getting too spoiler-y, the final two pages of ‘Spencer & Locke’ promise that an emotional and gripping arc is forthcoming. Do you think there’s any room for a procedural narrative in this book’s future? Because I’ve seen the potential of this crime drama, and it is limitless.

DP: If readers decide there is a market for our first arc, I have at least two more story arcs in mind for Spencer & Locke. I’d love to tell more stories with these guys, and not just because I know what their next case would be — after spending this much time working on them, I feel like I really have Locke and Spencer’s voices stuck in my head. They have such deep convictions, even for the most mundane stuff, and they’re just so much fun to play off one another. They’re my boys — how could I not love them?

9. Your favorite film noir, please.

DP: Forget it, Jarrod — it’s Chinatown.

10. Okay. It may be nothing, but the tag on the wall at the crime scene — “War Children”. What’s that all about?

DP: I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that! I’ll be totally honest with you — I didn’t even write that in my script, but I was immediately taken by it when Jorge included it in our pitch pages. I asked him about it, and he had said he was listening to the Rolling Stones while drawing those pages, and “Gimme Shelter” had come on, and it just felt like the right thing to add.

And it really was — because ultimately, to dive into the lyrics a bit, Spencer & Locke is a story about surviving the carnage of childhood, and the shelters we create to make it through the storm. So in that regard, Spencer and Locke very much are war children — and seeing the lasting impact of their tragic upbringing really is the heart of our story.

You can pre-order ‘Spencer & Locke’ (Jorge Santiago Jr. Main Cover: Feb171047; Maan House Variant: Feb171048; Joe Mulvey Variant: Feb171049) now.

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